How Companies Can Retain Returning Expats

There is no doubt that 2020 has shone a light on repatriation for both organisations and individuals alike. With over 400 000 Aussies returning throughout the year, many are heading home with their employer and actively looking for ways to leverage their international knowledge, skills and relationships.

For many expats the lure of an overseas assignment is the opportunity to acquire global leadership experience and position them for career progression upon return. For organisations, it’s an opportunity to invest in their high potentials, building out leadership succession and capturing valuable market intelligence to support business growth strategies.

Unfortunately though the repatriation journey is fraught with challenges for both the returning expat and the organisation that took them overseas. Many discover that the next career step is simply not there, the timing for progression doesn’t line up or the depth of challenge / opportunity to leverage their newly acquired international experience is not as rich as they had hoped for.

The reality is it can all too easily become a retention nightmare for the organisation and their talent development strategy. With expat assignments not cheap (the average assignment costs three to four times more than an employee’s salary back home) and recent reports suggesting that up to 28% of expats leave their employer within the first 2 years of return, there is a very real risk to the organisation’s return on investment.

Failing to retain repatriates also quite literally gives new meaning to the saying ‘one man’s loss is another man’s gain’ with former employees walking straight out your doors and through the doors of your competitor. When they do, they take with them their IP, insights and networks all of which you have made a significant investment.

So what steps can organisations take to ensure that this highly motivated, experienced talent pool doesn’t walk out the door?

In our recent podcast, Mandy Mirghashini shared how as a seasoned expat with Shell they had worked together to capture her knowledge, skills and relationships to embed them back into the Australian market upon her return.

The Key Considerations:

Position repatriation at the start

Repatriation should be considered the ‘pre-nup’ in any assignment agreement. Whilst career directions and opportunities may change during the course of the assignment there are some fundamental parameters that can be defined at the beginning so as to ensure that individuals and their families know how these changes impact the conditions of their assignment.

Make career management a priority

We know that the number one reason that many former expats leave their employer is a lack of opportunity once they return. Not only do they experience the feeling of having been ‘out of sight, out of mind’, the lack of clarity around the opportunity to meaningfully leverage their international experience sees them actively seeking out new ones. Interestingly the Brookfield Global Mobility Survey notes that whilst building international management experience is one of the top two reasons for sending employees abroad, 82% don’t have a formal career management process for employees; and 86% don’t have any repatriation strategies linked to career management and retention. What starts with a strong sense of the ‘mutual exchange of value’ can all too easily disappear upon this final stage.

Focus on knowledge integration

Returning expats bring with them a wealth of knowledge that can all too easily be turned into a competitive advantage. Market knowledge, cultural insights and locally based networks can increase business impact, efficiencies or act as triggers for innovation when transferred to the broader business. Opportunities to present, mentor and engage with other Australian counterparts are invaluable ways to demonstrate the value of international experience.

Appoint a key executive as a sponsor

Key sponsors play an integral role in helping returning expatriates reintegrate once they have returned. With up to date local market knowledge, trends and insights as well as key relationships they can easily help to bridge opportunities by advocating for and (re) introducing individuals.

Sponsor your employee into a local network with other repatriates

One of the most challenging parts of repatriation is the reverse culture shock. Typically this is drastically under-estimated by both the employee and the organisation on the journey ‘home’. Local networks that focus on providing support to repatriates can provide a safe place to discuss the challenges faced, share networks and meet others who are also navigating a similar journey.